Mainframe Computer vs Cloud: 14 Differences

Mainframe Computer vs Cloud

One option is using a mainframe computer with a centralized architecture and with high computing resources and another is cloud computing, which is a low cost and distributed computing architecture.

Typically, mainframe and cloud computing are the most noteworthy technologies today that will govern or decide the course of the future of digitization.

However, if you need to choose any one option among the two you will first need to know the differences between them.


  • Mainframe computers are large but more powerful and efficient in handling a large number of users to produce the desired output in quick time.
  • Mainframe computing is decade old technology but it offers almost the same benefits as cloud computing.
  • More businesses are moving to hybrid computing since it offers more flexibility, scalability, compliance, resiliency, centralization of data, security, workload consolidation, and reduced TCO or Total Cost of Ownership.

Mainframe Computer vs Cloud – The 14 Differences

Mainframe Computer and Cloud

1. Background

The era of mainframe computers dates back to the 1930s with the first Harvard Mark, which evolved gradually to ENIAC, UNIVAC and others.

Also, from the size of a large room and use of large vacuum tubes, the shape and components used in the modern mainframes computers have also evolved dramatically.

On the other hand, as for cloud computing, things started pretty late.

It is believed that the notion of cloud computing dates back to the 1960s but in reality, it happened on August 9, 2006 with the introduction of the term ‘cloud computing’ in an industry conference by the then Google CEO, Eric Schmidt.

2. Basic Differences

Mainframe computers are expensive needing costlier hardware, software and licensing and need a controlled environment to operate.

These machines also need an administrator to provide computing power for certain tasks and cannot operate on x86 architecture.

The porting of applications is also quite difficult.

On the other hand, cloud computing is less costly comparatively and is more dynamic in providing self-service.

It can operate on x86 architectures and even offers scaling up or down depending on the demands of the users.

The users can port applications from one cloud to another easily using the cloud in their own way without needing an administrator due to its high mobility and extremely collaborative features.

3. Architecture

Mainframe computing is designed on the basis of client-server architecture.

In this specific arrangement everything from the data to the software applications, from the processing power to the memory and controls are centralized and reside on the server side.

On the other hand, cloud computing is based on the distributed computing architecture when everything is of the service provider but can be shared by the users.

In comparison to servers, cloud computing offers a bit more control.

4. About

Also known as ‘Big Iron,’ the mainframe computers are used by large organizations.

These powerful and large machines are capable of handling hundreds of users and numerous critical applications at the same time with several peripherals attached to them.

On the other hand, cloud computing is all about a network or internet that allows the remote hosted servers on the internet to process, manage, store and access data online rather than doing it all locally on a disk.

The data used can be of any form such as files, images, audio, video, and so on.

5. Characteristic Features

The characteristic features of the mainframe computers include processing data in bulk batches which makes these machines extremely fast and able to support massive output.

The machines also allow hot swapping hard disks, memory and other hardware along with backward compatibility to the older hardware.

Some other notable features are virtualization, extensive I/O facilities, and more.

On the other hand, the characteristic features of cloud computing includes its working process in a distributed model, an agile infrastructure, easy availability, high reliability, more scalability, on demand provision of resources according to the need of the users, multi-sharing, location-independent devices that can be used or connected from anywhere, low cost computing, and different models of services.

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6. Uses and Applications

The mainframe computers are primarily used by larger organizations such as banks and other government agencies for production management, sales and purchase management, inventory control and billing, accounting and payroll management, business transactions, credit card transactions, airline reservations and information updates, information access and retrieval, scientific and engineering research and computations and lots more.

On the other hand, different applications of cloud computing include different file storage, art and design, data storage, backup and recovery, Big Data Analysis, image, antivirus, entertainment, URL or Uniform Resource Locator conversion, meeting, presentation, social media, GPS or Global Positioning System, education, e-commerce, accounting, management, testing and development, health care, and Software as a Service or SaaS applications.

7. Advantages

The advantages of using a mainframe computer are higher and faster processing power, reliable and robust architecture, and long term performance.

On the other hand, cloud computing offers self-service on demand, wide network, resource pooling, measured service and rapid expansion capacity.

8. Limitations

On the other hand, the limitations of mainframe computers are higher cost of hardware, higher maintenance, need for a suitable working environment, licensing, software, its incapability to operate on x86 architecture, and availability of skilled and professional maintenance engineers.

On the other hand, the downsides of cloud computing are chances of data loss and account hijacking, data breach, insecure APIs or application programming Interfaces, vendor lock-in, Denial of service attacks or DoS, Specter and Meltdown.

9. Server Location

As in the mainframe computing, the server is typically a single and monolithic host installed in a centralized location.

On the other hand, in cloud computing the data is stored in several servers that may be scattered.

10. Scalability

In terms of scalability, the mainframe computers seem to lag behind cloud computing a bit.

On the other hand, cloud computing can scale its power and resources dynamically.

It can also allow increased access by the businesses to the server by adding more clients simply and being able to access them remotely from anywhere. This is applicable to mobile devices as well.

11. Security

Security is one of the biggest advantages offered by the mainframe computers. This is because this specific type of computing is trustless and does not rely on the internet connection for the users to access the server.

On the other hand, in cloud computing, being all about the internet, there is the risk of intruders and other online threats.

Moreover, it relies on the blind faith of the users on the cloud service providers that they will keep the data safe while storing them on their own servers.

12. Reliability

Reliability is another important benefit offered that puts the mainframe computers a couple of steps ahead.

In case there is any issue with the local mainframe, it will be resolved easily and quickly by the on-site It professional working on it as a priority.

On the other hand, that is not the case with cloud computing because it does not have any control over the internet connection going down or the host server encounters any fault.

13. Terminals

The terminals used in mainframe computers are relatively dumb, which is not the case with cloud computing.

On the other hand, cloud computing utilizes a new standard for data storage and data search mechanisms.

14. Age

Mainframe computing is much older technology and uses different communication protocols and programming languages.

On the other hand, cloud computing is relatively a newer and more ostentatious technology using different programming languages, paradigms, and communication protocols.

Which is Better to Use – Mainframe Computer or Cloud?

Mainframe Computer vs Cloud

The short and simple answer to this question is – mainframe computers.

The primary reason to say so is that the mainframe computers are typically used to operate a private cloud environment.

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This means that without the mainframe computers, a cloud service will not exist, apparently.

It is the useful features of the mainframe computers that make it an integral part of the cloud environment.

Out of these, the most significant features that facilitate a cloud setting are:

  • It offers a lot of memory
  • It offers a lot of storage space and
  • It has the ability to virtualize workloads.

As for the large organizations, where mainframe computers are mostly used, it is perhaps the most cost-efficient option because it can handle large workloads most efficiently, which is also the case for a cloud service provider.

At this point you may argue that the cloud is the future and therefore it is more important than the mainframes.

Moreover, you can say that these two computing technologies have some similarities in them as well.

Yes, you are two in both the aspects, but to some extent. As for the similarities between these two technologies, they both implement a client-server model where all applications are run or stored on remote servers.

However, as in the case of the mainframe computing, these are stored in much larger server computers that are installed in large, specialized, air-conditioned rooms built specifically for installing mainframe computers.

The users connect to it via client terminals or terminal emulation software, as it is done in recent times.

On the other hand, in cloud computing all applications are typically stored in different servers but this can be accessed easily via a ‘thin client.’

It is due to the fact that all of the data is stored in a remote location in both technologies and not on the own computers of the users, the thin clients allow faster and hassle free accessing of data from anywhere.

Yes, it is very important today to store data in remote locations for additional storage needs and security reasons since laptops, tablets, and smartphones are becoming more dominant as a medium to access the servers.

In spite of all the similarities, the truth is the cloud cannot replace the mainframe computer which is why the mainframe computers are so important.

It is true that the mainframe computers are not trendy today and cloud and Big Data are hot topics, but these are still the core and serve as the central nervous system of several major industries such as healthcare and finance.

This is what the cloud service has not been able to achieve as of now.

Over the years, the mainframe computers have improved in technology and performance in order to hold its place with each new computing wave at the center.

Add to that, better security approaches and mainstream virtualization will not let the mainframe computers become extinct.

This platform is probably the best and most productive to complete a large number of transactions in quick time and to run critical applications most easily and efficiently.

However, cloud computing is also good and has become a revolution or the latest disruptive technology.

More and more organizations are shifting to the cloud and cloud-based infrastructures to reduce workload.

This platform offers increased and easier access to data practically from anywhere and better collaboration.

Still cloud computing cannot kill the mainframe computers, as predicted. In fact, it has found a strong foothold in the modern hybrid cloud computing architecture.

Now, looking at it from the perspective of the enterprises that run their business applications on a mainframe computer already, it will be very hard for them, if not impossible, to rewrite all those applications for the cloud.

If nothing else, it will surely be very complicated. Hence, they prefer to stick to the mainframe computer architecture.

The superior computing capability of the mainframe computer is truly invaluable. It allows having much better control while running and managing workloads over a series of distributed systems in comparison to the mid-range systems.

And, most importantly, when it comes to managing and scaling vector processing, the mainframe computers seem to be simply unbeatable.

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Therefore, the scenario and importance of the mainframe computers is highly unlikely to change any time soon.

In fact, you will be amazed considering the statistics that nine out of ten major insurance companies and ninety-six out of one hundred top banks in the world depend on mainframes even today.

So, do not write off the mainframe computers already.

So, why are the mainframe computers better? It is because due to its significant characteristics which include:

  • High predictability
  • High reliability and
  • High scalability.

It is due to these specific characteristics that the mainframe computers have achieved several major milestones, one of which is holding its place strongly and firmly against the trendier technology that came in the past 50 years.

And, it is also most likely that it will continue to do so and remain relevant in the following fifty.

However, the choice between a mainframe and the cloud will finally boil down to the existing computing platform and the business needs.

While the cloud setting may be best for some, it is the cost involved in shifting to the cloud from a conventional IT infrastructure that may pull them back.

And, as said earlier, those businesses that already have a solid mainframe infrastructure in place may find it quite impractical to make such a move.

No matter whichever way you choose, it is paramount that you consider these following points very carefully:

  • Either way, you should have a very strong and proficient IT team in place
  • You should keep both your options open so that you are flexible to change your approach in order to be more agile and
  • The feasibility of blending both types of computing within your infrastructure.

Ideally, a hybrid approach is the key and is more suitable in today’s scenario because it will give you the power to make adjustments as quickly as the computing world progresses. And, quickly means almost instantaneously.

Mainframe computers are actually the original cloud to a large extent because they offered precisely the same benefits to the users as cloud computing does today.

Therefore, it can be said that cloud computing should not be considered as a replacement for the mainframe computers.

In fact, it is simply a newer and flashier way of computing that offers almost the same type of functionalities and benefits that the mainframe computers did decades ago.

Migrating to the cloud is more often considered feasible by businesses because it helps in keeping the cost down due to the shared resources.

There is no need for investing in expensive hardware.

Still, cloud computing surely can be a part of the modern computing strategy but cannot be the entire thing.

Therefore, all in all, the mainframe computers will continue to stay as they were before.

If anything, it will in all probability grow even bigger as a hybrid approach that will offer five times more benefits than a cloud environment would offer in isolation.

And it will be offered in five distinct categories such as:

  • Improved business acceleration
  • Enhanced efficiency of the computing architecture
  • Developer productivity
  • More flexibility in the long term and
  • Better risk and compliance management.

Therefore, there is no doubt that integrating the mainframe environment into the cloud is the need of the hour to ensure much better computing and more productivity.


So, after knowing the differences between a mainframe computer and cloud computing, you now surely know that both these computing techniques are important today but none is better than the other since both accomplish their respective objectives typically in a different way.

About Taylor

AvatarTaylor S. Irwin is a freelance technology writer with in-depth knowledge about computers. She has an understanding of hardware and technology gained through over 10 years of experience.

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